Jemima Lewis: Personally, I draw the line at daylight dogging

I am culturally discomforted by the sight, or even sound, of other people having sex
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The Independent Online

It's strange that celebrities so rarely tell the truth, because they're much more lovable when they do. I have developed a protective passion for Charlotte Church because of the unguarded way she prattles to the press about her drinking, her weight and her handsome boyfriend Gavin Henson. ("Isn't he lush? Sometimes I just sit and stare at him for hours.")

Likewise, only the most curmudgeonly homophobe could have resisted a smile at George Michael's spectacular, exuberant coming out eight years ago. Shortly after he was caught cottaging in a public lavatory by an undercover LA cop, the former Wham! frontman released a single entitled "Outside", in which he literally sang the praises of having sex in public. The video featured policemen in shiny uniforms dancing and twirling their batons in a lavatory illuminated by disco lights.

The moral majority, which had been waiting for Michael's grovelling apology, was left open-mouthed. Far from being ruined by the scandal, he seemed happier than ever. At last, he was free to be the same person in public that he had long been in private: a randy, pot-smoking, thrill-seeking gay man.

It is clear that Michael still exults in his belated liberation. When News of the World photographers caught him cruising on Hampstead Heath this week, he responded with typical defiance. "Are you gay?" he demanded. "No? Then fuck off! This is my culture!"

Later, he expounded on the details of his cultural odyssey. "A very large part of the male population, gay or straight, totally understands the idea of anonymous and no-strings sex," he declared. "The fact that I choose to do that on a warm night in the best cruising ground in London - which happens to be about half a mile from my home - I don't think would be that shocking to many gay people."

That is an understatement. I don't think I know any gay men who are consistently faithful to their other halves. It is one of the things we women envy - this ability to separate love from sex; to treat infidelity as the scratching of a biological itch rather than the death of trust. Michael has a steady boyfriend of 10 years, Kenny Goss, who appears not to mind his nocturnal ramblings - so why should we?

And yet culture is not, in itself, a justification for anything. We all have our cultural preferences: mine is for monogamous sex with no one else present. I would go so far as to say that I am culturally discomforted by the sight - or even the sound - of other people having sex. Some of my friends think nothing of rounding off a pleasant evening with a spontaneous orgy. I get uneasy just watching other couples hold hands. Once I shared a bed with two drunken friends who started canoodling as soon as they thought I was asleep. As the jiggling intensified, they edged gradually closer and closer, until - horrors! - they bounced right into me. I gave a shriek of dismay and shoved them away with both hands, but they seemed entirely unembarrassed.

Modern sexual morality amounts to one central commandment: do as you wish, provided you don't hurt anyone else. The trouble is, this flabby injunction gives us no indication of where to draw the line between, say, your urgent desire to go alfresco and my equally urgent desire not to witness it.

The law isn't much help. The Sexual Offences Act of 2003 made it legal to have sex in a public place as long as you have a "reasonable expectation of privacy" - a definition of infuriating murkiness. Gay men have become, of necessity, adept at discreet assignations in public places. They tend to confine themselves to times and places (2am on the heath) where the only bystanders are likely to be other gay men - or News of the World photographers.

Heterosexual adventurers seem to be distressingly cavalier by comparison. A friend of mine recently encountered a group of "doggers" in Hyde Park, in broad daylight. At first she thought the woman was being attacked, and ran to help her - only swerving away at the last minute, when she was close enough to see the look of ecstasy on the woman's face. Afterwards, my friend felt humiliated - and then annoyed that, through their own shamelessness, the exhibitionists should have visited shame upon her.

The very fact that cultural sensitivity has become a rallying cry for homosexual pop stars as well as religious fundamentalists shows what an impossible criterion it is. In the end you have to make a choice. On balance, because I am unlikely to walk on the heath during the cruising hour, I am happy for Michael's right to late-night hanky panky to take precedence. But I draw the line at daylight dogging.

We all have our limits - even Michael. He is suing a middle-aged, pot-bellied, unemployed van driver who told The News of the World they'd had sex in a bush. Michael may not mind being caught cruising, but he wants us to know that he has standards. "As much as I don't want to be ageist or fattist," he told the Richard & Judy show, "it's dark out there - but it's not that dark."

jemima.lewis@virgin.net

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